Busyness: Virtue or Vice? – February 8, 2018

In reply the Lord said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the best portion, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

“Unbelievable…” thought Martha as shook her head in disgust while frantically jumping around from one task to another. “Jesus has come to our house, and Mary can’t lift one finger to help! Could she be any ruder to our guest? What is she thinking, just sitting there at his feet? And why is Jesus letting her get away with it?” Peeved to the point of exasperation, Martha just couldn’t tolerate such blatant injustice for one more second: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left all the work for me to do alone? Tell her to help me!”

Surely Jesus’ repetition of her name—“Martha, Martha”—conveys both the tenderness and the urgency of his reply. “I hear you,” says Jesus, in effect. “I know you’re stressed out and overwhelmed. But the furious energy you’re expending is entirely misdirected.” Although his answer is somewhat cryptic—what exactly is the “one thing”?—Jesus is steering Martha toward a more focused understanding of what counts as worthwhile work.

To say we live in an easily distracted culture is patently clichéd. It’s obvious that smart phones, social media, and clickbait marketing have nearly perfected the ancient craft of seizing human attention. Some websites have even developed a complex algorithm to ensure their site is as “sticky” as possible. By aggregating the kinds of topics and products you’ve shown interest in online—an approach drawn from the “deep neural network” concept (just Google it!)—companies seek to keep you “stuck” on their website. It’s a proven strategy.

Yet the overlooked irony in all of these well-known tactics is that it is precisely distractions that are used to hold our attention. To put it bluntly, human nature has a way of gravitating toward junk. Of course, we’d all prefer to believe we’re too shrewd and sophisticated to fall prey to such blatant, lowbrow tricks. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit we can do lots of things, watch lots of things, read lots of things, and say lots of things without ever really accomplishing anything.

Which brings us back to busy Martha. Jesus isn’t commending Mary for not working; Jesus is highlighting Mary’s priorities. Because of the omnipresence of diversions in our lives we, like Martha, are prone to confuse our busyness—especially busyness conducted on behalf of Jesus—with productive faithfulness. Ultimately, however, Jesus didn’t want the banquet Martha was fretting over. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t want to know how many hours of Christian service we’ve logged. He wants us, all of us—heart, soul, mind, and strength. May God, therefore, help us prioritize our work so that our busyness serves our greatest and highest purpose—“to know God and enjoy Him forever.”

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